For something that used to be a Friday series I haven’t worked on this in a while. For the new people, Art Of Storytelling is about looking at the various forms of storytelling to go over their strengths and weaknesses. Whether it’s been prose versus comics, animation versus live-action or even drawing vs computer (and that’s not even the complete list), I’ve noted that each does their own thing well and none of them are necessarily better than the other, just better for a particular story. We still have more to go before we start digging into genres and then whatever it is I think up next.
Last time I mentioned getting into puppets, so let’s do that for this installment. If you want to see a form of storytelling less appreciated than comics and video games, puppets would be it. Outside of parody you don’t see many adult productions that use puppets. It’s considered “kids stuff”, but if I’m not accepting that for cartoons I’m not about to let puppets get the negative treatment…because the ones who make that claim are the same people who look down at kids entertainment, which is a whole other topic.
There are two general types of puppetry, but we’ll discuss stop-motion in the future. I want to look at the more traditional puppets this round, the hand puppet and the marionette. I won’t get into the full history of puppetry because there are more learned discussions on that than I can give you, but we will look at how puppetry can tell a story in a way other forms can’t.
Now admittedly puppets do share with cartoons the ability to attract children’s attention, which leads to the myth that puppets, like cartoons, are only for kids. Additionally puppets are primarily used for humor, at least in the US. I just did a search on YouTube and most of the results were comedy for kids, comedy for adults, puppet shows, and ventriloquists. However you can also find things like this:
Paper puppets may or may not be new but I’ve been starting to see them used in more surreal stories. It’s like some new form of marionette, only using a different product of dead trees. There are so many variety of puppets between cultures, countries, and styles that you would need more than one article to go over them all. Clearly the puppeteer is having fun playing with them like we used to do as kids with felt puppets from the store or folding a piece of paper into a closing mouth. Then you have shadow puppets, puppets made from just using your hand…I could go on.
However, what makes a puppet fun to watch? I don’t just mean some ventriloquist or some puppet stage, though something like Punch & Judy won’t fly today. Look at The Dark Crystal. Jim Henson used his years of experiences with the Muppets to create something so unlike anything before it, at least on that scale. You had hand puppets with the hidden rod to move the arms, full body puppet costumes, and since then they’ve made shows like Fraggle Rock where you have one person in the costume and someone else using a remote puppet head to make the mouth move and eyes blink.
I think this may be where puppets are strong. Whether it’s something like this or Nickelodeon’s recent The Barbarian And The Troll, or even the stop-motion puppets. It’s a sense of un-reality that still feels solid. Unlike even computer animation a puppet is right there. They don’t necessarily have to interact with actual people; in fact some stories benefit from not having people. It was one of Henson’s thoughts going into The Dark Crystal, that anything that looked like a human in a costume or just a human in general would break the world and damage the immersion. Obviously there are exceptions, like Farscape or Yoda from the Star Wars franchise. However it takes an expert puppeteer to make a puppet feel like a regular being than a puppet when playing with regular people no matter how good the make-up and costume are.
Yet puppets are solid and there. There’s no need for adding in additional lighting. Sometimes puppets or statues are used in place for the actors to interact with and the computer model is used to replace it later so the virtual effects animators can get a handle on the lighting and shading. They aren’t us so they can get away with a bit more, though still having less freedom than a cartoon character because it still has the essence of a living being with the right puppets. Sesame Street is great but you can’t limit puppets to that form of puppetry. You can create worlds that don’t require as much computer imagery and smaller physical sets, you’re still using physical beings (just fake ones), and the better the puppeteer the more real the creature seems while still allowing for something you wouldn’t accept in a human actor.
Then again that can also hurt it. I’ll talk more about it in stop-motion since this is where I hear about it more often, but that same bit of unreality can turn someone off. The stigma of being for kids has probably hurt it too, and when it comes to marionettes seeing the strings can actually pull them out of the experience, so finding ways to hide the strings is something of an art form before modern video editing software can be used to hide the strings and cover any other flaws like a wrist accidentally showing up. Or you can play with the strings like the movie Strings, world where if your string is cut you die. I found an old review by our old pal Apollo Z Hack.
There are people out there exploring and advancing the art of puppetry for both artistic and storytelling purposes, not just comedy and kids. I would love to see them get more attention along with the comedy and kids because I don’t want the same issue with comics happen to puppets where kids are being chased off. Puppetry is an amazing tool to tell unique stories and more people need to learn about it. Look up international puppetry, look up some of the stuff I posted here, and find stories you’ve never seen before.
Next time (unless I forget) we’ll look at the stop-motion puppets because that’s a different breed with its own form of updating.